Director Jeremy Saulnier came up through the ranks as a cinematographer having shot his directorial breakout “Blue Ruin” himself. When it came time to tackle “Green Room” – a story about a hardcore punk band locked in a green room after stumbling upon a murder – he knew the film would be too big to direct and shoot himself. “I designed a cluster-fuck of eight people stuck in a room against an army of Nazi skinheads,” explained Saulnier in a recent interview with Indiewire. “It was so key to keep emotional charge in the room and have all these characters maintain continuity. It was a tremendous amount of work and I knew I could not be focused on the camera.”
In “casting” a cinematographer, Saulnier was looking for a filmmaking partner who could both handle the resources of a larger budget ($5 million), but who could also scale down and work minimally the way Saulnier did in “Blue Ruin.” He reached for Sean Porter (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” “It Felt Like Love“), who Saulnier knew would be willing to jump in the van with no crew to shot the film’s opening driving scenes, but who could also handle 150 people on set trying to shape the sunlight so that the film’s big finale looked like sunrise.
Indiewire recently caught up with Porter and Saulnier to find out how the two collaborated to create the stylized ugliness of A24’s “Green Room.”
Saulnier: “The great benefit of setting the movie in a punk rock and hardcore venue is you get a haunted house. A real one. You don’t have to over-direct it and make it lit poorly or artificial. It’s all there, we just had to mine it as if it were real. There’s stage lighting which has all these pops of color. The green room is backstage, it’s not for show. It’s shitty fluorescents and it’s kind of scuzzy. Visually, if you just keep true to look of these place I knew from my years in the hardcore scene, you have blacklight, army surplus green, weather, leather, spikes, you have mohawks, pink hair, blue hair. It’s so visually rich that Sean and I could approach it naturalistically and have a high production value.”
Porter: “We looked at so many references for punk band venues. In 1970s black and white, grainy photos it looks fantastic. But if you recreate those now with modern digital cameras it looks ugly in a rough way. Those kids were not lighting designers in any way, they were just trying to find a place to get high and listen to music. Trying to respect that and make the world believable was challenging. We had to piece together our own story about the venue’s history. Maybe when Patrick Stewart’s character bought the place he added a new light over the bar and maybe a couple black lights, but other than that it’s been left untouched. Even leaving a few old remnants of what came before, like maybe it was a VFW hall. I think creating this visual history of the club aided in creating its unique ugliness.”
Porter: “We did a lot of camera tests with the blacklight, I wanted to see how it looked on skin, walls and on paint with various cameras. Maybe the Alexa doesn’t have the highest resolution, but that’s not really a big deal for me these days. It’s color reproduction and working low light that mattered to me for this film. At the time, even with the Red’s newest epic sensor, the low light and the color reproduction wasn’t there.The Alexa can take really ugly lighting and make it something presentable. I wasn’t fighting the camera and fighting the medium as much. I wanted it to look dark and scary because that’s the way the actors were supposed to feel.”
Trapped Inside the Green Room vs. the Swirling Prey Outside
Porter: “Inside the green room we wanted it to be fixed and be just as trapped as the kids were. To Jeremy’s credit, I’m glad he wanted to raise the bar by locking the camera down and being stuck in this room just observing. That means the performances and pacing really have to land. If those things fail then you can’t be so controlled with your camera work. During our meetings about the visual language there were a couple moments in the script where we decided we would break loose. We even came up with some tricky ways to move from fixed to handheld. We wanted a couple moments to get super visceral. During shooting we would get to those moments and in the middle of the scene we would look at each other and say, ‘this doesn’t feel right.’ On several occasions we abandoned that and ending up sticking to our guns.”
Saulnier: “We knew we wanted to be more static in the green room. We knew we wanted to be on a dolly. No steadicam was allowed. But outside the club we needed to keep it moving, like sharks swirling their prey.”
Porter: “We expanded the visual language when we are outside with the bad guys. There is all this danger spiraling around the green room that the kids weren’t really aware of. To achieve that we talked about all kinds of things and decided that steadicam was going to be too uncontrollable and dreamy. So while I was brainstorming some different options, I was visiting some rental houses in Portland, and deep in the caverns of one them I found this pretty old, early 90’s prototype rig called a Z-gib, or a zero gravity gib. We had them do a little work to it and found a way to mount it to a more traditional dolly. This way I could hold the camera and move it around, then let go of it at any time and it would stay there. It was a way for us to get multi axis moves that you could never do with a gib or dolly by itself. It allowed us to do exactly what Jeremy wanted for the outside scenes. I could swirl around Patrick Stewart and the other actors, but I was never tied down.”
The Film’s Gentler Opening
Porter: “The opening scenes before we get to the green room ultimately play a small part of the film’s trajectory, but it was important that the audience felt immediately grounded in these kid’s world.”
Saulnier: “I pulled a lot of stories from my youth being in a band, or my friends being in touring bands. These are very personal experiences from the groups I’ve grown up with.”
Porter: “We wanted it to be this charming soft road trip, ‘everyone was going to be okay’ sort of vibe. We wanted this lightness to it. We shot with a lot of wide open apertures, which helped that softness and made it more dreamlike. In a way it creates these images in your head so when you are in those dark moments later in the movie, you remember them like they are a dream.”
Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.